Is it possible for marketers to avoid politics in today’s highly social world? We explore this thorny question by examining Super Bowl LII commercials and applying the concept of brand beneficence.
Tide’s Super Bowl Ad
Adweek’s consensus choice for best ad during Super Bowl LII was “It’s a Tide ad.” The ad is actually a four-spot sequence. The first 45-second ad ran in the first quarter. Then there were three 15-second commercials for each subsequent quarter.
The first ad starts like a traditional car ad, with a sporty sedan accelerating along a mountain road. The ad cuts to the driver, actor David Harbour, who drones “Yeah, just your typical Super Bowl car ad.” He pauses, looks to the camera, smirks a bit and asks “Right?”
Then the ad cuts to a bar scene and Harbour says “Or, a hilarious beer ad” and laughs with his friends as a full bottle of beer slides past him off the bar and crashes on the floor. The third skit has Harbour in heaven, in triplicate, and he says skeptically “Or, whatever ad this is” and whispers “Whatever.”
In the fourth skit Harbour is dressed as a rancher. He turns to the camera and drawls “But, it’s a Tide ad.” Then five more humorous skits repeat the punchline with variations. In the tenth scene, Harbour is sitting with “his” family (in clean clothes) and he asks quizzically “So, does this make every Super Bowl ad a Tide ad?”
With this conclusion, the Tide ad hijacks every Super Bowl ad. If actors in an ad are wearing clean clothes, then they were probably washed in Tide. If they have dirty clothes, then they need Tide. In short, every ad is about Tide (even if it isn’t).
The top creative directors for Saatchi & Saatchi (Campopiano and Bickler) both describe the ad strategy as rooted in the brand’s iconic market position. Another aspect of the Tide ad strategy, as explained by P&G’s North American fabric care brand director (Miletic), was to support Tide’s new scent, new stain-cleaning line, and new cleaning effectiveness claims.
Yet some viewers saw an embedded political message in the Tide ads. For example, the following morning Jake Novak, a senior columnist for CNBC, wrote: “This genius Super Bowl stunt is a clear representation of our current political climate: Donald Trump is effectively running the ‘It’s a Tide ad’ presidency.” Is it possible that P&G was ever so subtly criticizing the Trump presidency?
Further support for the political interpretation of the Tide commercial comes from the fact that P&G persistently airs political ads. Despite waves of criticism, the company remains committed to using its corporate brand to support the anti-bias movement.
The point here is that any ad can be interpreted as political. The more social attention the ad attracts, the more likely it is to be both lauded and lambasted from multiple political perspectives. If a brand “avoids” politics, it is vulnerable to being pigeonholed as “conservative.” If a brand takes a stand on a liberal social issue, it obviously exposes itself to being labeled “liberal.”
Were Most Super Bowl LII Ads “Tame”?
Most early reviews of Super Bowl LII ads described them as tame or decidedly devoid of overt political messaging. For example, Sapna Maheshwari for the New York Times wrote an article: “Advertisers Eschew Politics for Humor in Super Bowl Commercials.”
But did a year of highly divisive and near-daily political turmoil make the Super Bowl LII ads seem less political than last year? Did many of them contain political messages, but we were just not as responsive this year as we were last year?
Charles Taylor, a marketing professor at Villanova University, thinks 20% of all Super Bowl LII ads featured causes, compared with just 6 percent last year. Here are some examples: The T-Mobile ad celebrated diversity. The Kia Forte ad was a subtle jab at the practice of stating obvious falsehoods as truth (similar to the Tide ads). The Groupon ad was a not-so-subtle attack on greed. The Go-GURT ad poked fun at several conservative political themes. Toyota highlighted the Paralympics. The Budweiser commercial spoke to answering the call for disaster relief.
While many of the ads emphasized humor, that does not necessarily make them apolitical. A case in point is provided by late night comedy. This political humor eases the day’s angst stemming from political discord. The difference between late night comedy and the Super Bowl ads may best be described on a continuum of political aggressiveness. Anchoring one end you have no-holds-barred political commentary. The next level down you have political humor such as latenight comedy. Off to the other end of the continuum are ads with subtle political nuances and undertones that are easily downplayed by the sponsor and often missed by the casual observer.
Another way to think about the difference between Super Bowl LI and LII ads is this: Over the course of a year, political and social justice messaging from corporations has become more of a norm than an exception.
In Philip Kotler’s six-step branding model, the last step is to answer the question: “Does the brand serve well the person and the society?”
Kotler refers to this as “brand beneficence.” Companies increasingly see that establishing and conveying a brand’s higher purpose is what it takes to build long-term brand equity, goodwill, and profitability.
One indication of the importance of the brand beneficence concept, or creating meaningful connections between brands and social issues, is the very high popularity of this Kotler article on brand-activism.
Some companies inject social issues into their marketing as a tool for generating emotional reactions among viewers. Consumers are increasingly alert to and negatively triggered by such tactics. The Martin Luther King Super Bowl LII ad by Dodge may be an example. While GM’s effort may have been totally nested within the spirit of brand beneficence, consumer reactions were mixed. Perhaps the final scene’s jump shift to a soldier hugging their child in the airport was too much and pushed viewers to question GM’s authenticity. Was the ad about GM’s commitment to fighting racial injustice, or was it just about pulling heartstrings to drive short-term truck sales? Many concluded it was the latter.
Another advantage behind taking a decisive stand on a social issue is that a company can readily anticipate and prepare for the risks. For example, P&G can study the world of “anti-anti-bias” and prepare for pushbacks and counter attacks. This is far better than pretending you can avoid politics, and then find yourself in damage control mode as your brand is attacked as conservative, uncaring, detached, or “whatever” – as Harbour joked in the Tide ad.
So, Was this Article Political?
The simple answer is yes. In today’s world it is nearly impossible for marketers to avoid political, social issues. The very act of avoiding politics is a political act. One of the most difficult challenges facing CMOs today is helping the senior team come to this realization: they can’t avoid politics, so they need to find a social issue or a related set of social issues that mesh inseparably with the long-term essence of the company. Anything less is not only a lost opportunity, it is an exposure to a significant and avoidable risk.
Karen Puckett is the President and Chief Executive Officer at Harte Hanks.
Mark Blessington is a sales and marketing consultant at Mark Blessington Inc, and is the author of four books.